Yesterday, a facebook exchange left me feeling off balance. The exchange, with people from a particular support group that I am incredibly fond of, ended with us agreeing mostly to disagree. This isn’t the first time we’ve disagreed. There are moments I am as socially awkward as my son and sometimes I’ve done a poor job of communicating something which resulted in a virtual slap on the back of the hand from the director. Also, there have been agreements to disagree with members of the group that just didn’t see things the way I did. Until this moment all of those disagreements could be shrugged off. This one nearly kept me from sleeping and has bugged me all day. Why?
I feel I must back up here.
The exchange happened over this post on The Nation.
Last week, Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney said it was better for children to have a parent at home. “To have one parent to stay closely connected and at home during those early years of education can be very very important,” he said. It’s not hard to imagine which parent he’s talking about.
Romney’s statement didn’t elicit much in the way of outrage, a sign that American women have one more hurdle to overcome on the way to equality: the sexism of mom-ism. It’s no longer enough that women love their children. To be a truly committed parent, women are expected to be mothers above all else—we’re “moms first.”
Michelle Obama says that despite all her accomplishments, her “most important title is still ‘mom-in-chief’.” Ann Romney told the crowd at the Republican National Convention that it’s mothers “who really hold this country together.”
“We’re the mothers, we’re the wives, we’re the grandmothers, we’re the big sisters, we’re the little sisters, we’re the daughters.”
The sentiment may seem innocuous, but there’s a danger in returning to an ideal where women’s most important identity is relational rather than individual. If we want equality, women with children would be better served calling themselves people first, moms second.
I like The Nation. I even like the author of this article, Jessica Valenti. But I can’t quite agree with I’m Not a ‘Mother First’. It’s not so much that there’s any one point I fully disagree with. Clearly Mitt Romney was alluding to the mother staying at home. I’m not in a hurry to have women return to a society where all they can be is mothers. I know that women of the past could only hope to contribute to politics by raising a boy who went on to be a politician and I don’t want to return to that either. I don’t even think that having an individuality while also being parents is harmful or wrong. My discomfort stems from an entirely different place. Because my situation is that I did have to mostly give up Beth for the sake of my children and I suppose I would like to feel that people recognize the depth of my sacrifice and of those people like me. But they don’t.
Taking a look just at facebook, I’d like anyone who reads this to visit the pages of two people they know who are stay at home moms. At the top of their page, you’ll see “Works at” followed by something. Notice that the two people you know don’t have the same thing there. This is because facebook doesn’t know what to do with a person who has no “career.” One of my friends has “Works at I’m a stay at home Mommy”. Another has managed to remove the career line from her page and I happen to know she really had to dig around to do it. There isn’t a choice for “Stay At Home Mom” in the work section. I had to select “other” and then type in a career.
When I attend a function where there are people I don’t know, I inevitably hear, “And what do you do?” If I say that I’m a stay at home mom, they look uncomfortable, change the subject, or quickly find an excuse to leave. I can choose instead to say that I’m a private teacher. I do take private students at my home and I do homeschool. In both senses, this is absolutely true, but I don’t make much for this work and I don’t like to give people the notion that I do. I have done a number of interesting things in my life: I’ve been a deejay, a radio program director, music director of the year for small market radio, and a keyboard player in a rock band. I’ve run a print shop, worked at a museum, and I’ve done private marketing. None of that matters if I say that I’m a stay at home mom.
Strangers aren’t the only ones. When I left work to homeschool Pumpkin, I became the maid. This is a sore point between my husband and me and we’ve had a number of fights over it. Several things happened all at that same time. We bought a new house. I delivered Ducky. And our washer broke. So we moved into this new house with a dishwasher, which my husband has never loaded or run. We also bought a new washer and dryer, which my husband has never used. We found ourselves with a giant lawn, which my husband has never mowed. Why? I’m at home. I can take care of it. After all, what else have I got to do?
Even I didn’t realize the full weight of this decision. I imagined that I would have time for projects. After all, I had managed a household while working full time, right? But when you aren’t home, things you’ve straightened up stay clean. I had one child before, not two. And I had no idea how hard homeschooling would be. Infinitely better for Pumpkin? Yes. Good for my self-esteem? No. While my child doesn’t want to go back to public school and recognizes that school is much better here than public school was, he still fights me. A lot. Defiance to mommy tends to be ten times worse than it was to teachers. And sometimes it feels like defiance is all there is.
Being a stay at home mom feels pretty thankless. Maybe it isn’t in the long run, but a good meal or a clean house doesn’t ever get gushing praise. If I made something really cool at the museum, I’d get kudos that felt pretty good. Here, I’m lucky if they notice. My nine year old 2E kid and my toddler can’t really be left alone. Getting a shower is sometimes difficult because I can’t tell what they’ll be into when I come out. I can get up before them if I’m not too exhausted. Or I can shower after they go to bed. Otherwise, it probably isn’t happening.
My hobbies are pursued in 15 minute increments. The lessons I teach are done out of desperation for cash, and given all I have to handle, I’m not sure how long I’ll be able to keep up the pace. I get exactly two breaks per month from my kids to go to writers meetings that I’m increasingly less prepared for. Is a mom all I am? No. Is it most of what I am now? Yes. And as hard as that was to come to terms with, I feel like I should be praised for my courage, rather than being dissed for being less than the lady next to me, whose circumstances are not the same as mine.
No, I don’t agree with Mitt Romney. Not every family has a parent that can stay at home. The notion that he could know what is right for every family is beyond absurd. He has always lived a life of privilege. Each family does what they must, and without infinite resources, that can be mind-bendingly difficult.
I also didn’t take exception with the first lady when she said of all her jobs the most important was being “mother in chief” because I understood her words to mean that when it came down to it, the kids came first. That’s a matter of priorities. If she put off the needs of her children because another job had taken precedence, I’d think her a lousy mother. The needs of our children should come first — but I am talking needs here, not wants. But yes, you do put your own oxygen mask on first in the airplane because if you pass out, your kids are left without your assistance. But if there’s one available seat on the ark when the world is about to end, a good mom gives it to her child and watches the apocalypse in person. That represents good priorities.
We are never, ever one thing. If a single mom manages to homeschool and support her family, I believe she ought to be applauded, because that is HARD WORK. But my life is hard too. And I walked away from a job I loved because it was the best thing for my family. I agreed to be invisible and mostly nameless for the good of my family. And that is why this article and the disagreement bothers me. For all the invisibility I endure, I also don’t want the pendulum to swing from the notion that a woman can only be a housewife to the notion that a woman cannot stay home with her kids. Being a stay at home mom is a job. I’ll have no days off, no sick time, no retirement program and no pay. I’ll work hard without praise or even so much as a thank you sometimes. I’ll do sisyphean task after sisyphean task until I can’t stand another dish or piece of laundry. But I’ll also build a lot of memories during these fleeting years of childhood, and I’ll have a thousand opportunities to tell my budding little people how much they mean to me. Those are the reasons I made this choice and the reason I drag myself out of bed, even when I’ve hardly slept a wink. It isn’t glamorous, but it is my life. And I feel my choice should be respected.